ATLANTA — Thousands of felony offenders may see their voting rights restored sooner rather than later.

Lawmakers are considering loosening Georgia’s disenfranchisement laws.

A Senate study committee on revising voting rights for nonviolent felony offenders has the standing to recommend the change that would allow nonviolent offenders to cast a ballot as soon as their time is served.

Georgia is one of 22 states that revokes an offender's right to vote during incarceration and while on probation or parole and before they pay off all fines and fees.

As of April, the Department of Community Supervision oversaw more than 200,000 released inmates, 75% of those they considered to be nonviolent felony offenders. Those nonviolent felony offenders — 166,001 people with drug, property or other nonviolent offenses — would be able to cast a ballot if voting rights were expanded.

While law experts say the loosening of enfranchisement laws — laws giving or taking away the right to vote — has been a trend across the country for the past decade, national criminal justice advocates say Georgia’s possible revision does not go far enough.

But committee members have a long road ahead of them in defining what offenders should regain their right to vote and what crimes should continue to warrant disenfranchisement in communities across the state and the SunLight Project areas of Dalton, Milledgeville, Moultrie, Thomasville, Tifton and Valdosta.

Stacey Abrams, who unsuccessfully ran for Georgia governor in 2018, passed on a campaign for U.S. Senate to launch the voters rights organization Fair Fight. Felon disenfranchisement, she said, is just another kind of voter suppression.

Experts and politicians alike can only theorize if expanding voting rights to the more than 160,000 nonviolent felony offenders will change election results. Some argue revising laws on a state level could have changed the outcome of historical elections, but others say the question should not be put on the table.

Felon disenfranchisement

In 2016, an estimated 6.1 million people in the U.S. lost their voting rights due to felony convictions, according to The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform advocacy group. Southern states have been in the spotlight for high disenfranchised populations and recent law changes.

In Georgia in 2018, 266,000 individuals lost their voting rights due to felony disenfranchisement, according to Reform Georgia — a peach state specific criminal justice reform advocacy organization.

Neighboring states have made recent strides in allowing more people with felony convictions to vote. In 2017, Alabama identified a list of 46 offenses that result in being disqualified from voting, restoring rights to others.

Florida restored voting rights for 1.4 million felons who have served their time in 2018 through a ballot measure fueled by a resident-led coalition — excluding those convicted of murder and sex crimes. But lawmakers recently drew controversy by adding the requirement they pay off all criminal justice system fines and fees before they vote. Voting rights advocates responded by filing a lawsuit.

The same year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order granting partial voting rights to felons on parole, putting ballots back in the hands of 35,000 residents.

In April, Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders made headlines after a CNN town hall saying every felon should have the right to vote “even terrible people” such as the Boston bomber.

The changes are part of an “ebb and flow” of how states look at enfranchising people, said Lori Ringhand, a law professor at the University of Georgia who studies voting patterns. The trend tending to be bipartisan.

“I am not surprised Georgia is looking at it as well,” she said. “It’s part of a larger, fresher look at incarceration policies and what best practices can actually help serve people and get them reengaged in communities.”

Nicole Porter, director of Advocacy for The Sentencing Project, said the issue of restoring voting rights is particularly important in Georgia, the state has the highest rate of residents on felony probation.

“Georgia is a problematic state in a lot of ways,” she said. “Most clearly because of the large number of people living on felony probation, many of whom are young and disenfranchised in their early adulthood that may carry them through middle age. Marginalizing them during their most formative years may have implications for the rest of their lives.”

Barriers to reintegration

When Dalton native Wesley Johnson completed his parole for a drug felony charge in 2015, Project Destiny — a reintegration assistance organization for former inmates in Whitfield and Murray counties — helped him get back on his feet.

Johnson, now executive director of the project, knows all the hoops felons have to jump through to get back to functioning in communities. Project Destiny provides services such as clothing vouchers for local thrift stores, help getting a state ID, transportation to job interviews or medical appointments and help signing up for GED classes.

There are so many needs when an inmate is released, he said; voting is not always one of their first worries — but it should be.

“I really think it needs to be on everyone's mind, not just to register to vote, but to actually go and vote,” Johnson said. “That's one of our most important rights.”

A 2008 study showed Georgia is one of the hardest places to find employment and housing with a criminal history. Felony probation periods in Georgia are also double the national average probation time and about 6.3 years, according to Reform Georgia.

Sara Totonchi, executive director for the Southern Center for Human Rights, said allowing offenders to vote while reintegrating into society can reduce recidivism.

"Opportunities that allow people who are returning from prison to invest in their community and be included will reduce the likelihood of the person having further contact with the criminal or legal system," she said.

A 2004 study showed voting can reduce the likelihood of recidivism by half.

Sean Morales-Doyle, counsel in the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said when an individual is placed on probation or parole, they are expected to reintegrate into communities.

“We’ve already made a decision that we want these people to be returning to our communities and I think we must all agree that we want to encourage them to return in a healthy way,” Morales-Doyle told CNHI. “... Denying them the opportunity to participate in democracy sends them exactly the wrong message.”

Even local law enforcement agrees the change is a step in the right direction.

Brian Childress, retired Valdosta police chief and law-enforcement compliance assessor in Valdosta, said the change under consideration, is “the right thing to do.”

“We say individuals coming out of prison have served their debt to society but by adding additional restraints to these returning citizens only pushes them back to prison,” he said.

Vague voting laws in Georgia and other states alike cause confusion among felons and even poll workers, Totonchi said. The state cannot expect poll workers — who are volunteers — to keep track of who can and can't vote. Sometimes offenders who are eligible may not know they can vote.

Milledgeville resident Jermaine Reaves, 45, has never registered to vote in Georgia. Reaves has been in and out of trouble with the law for most of his life and served more than eight eight years in prison for drug crimes. Now that he's older, he said, he sees the importance of voting — but doesn't necessarily know how.

Reaves said he believes state and federal officials should provide convicted felons with information on how they can fully restore their civil rights and become eligible to vote again.

"It’s important to vote and to vote for the candidate we think will do the best job for us,” Reaves said. “I really think there are a lot of men and women in our prisons today who don’t know what to do when they get out and how they can go about getting their voting rights restored.”

Stacey Abrams has built a platform on reducing voter suppression and making sure every eligible resident of Georgia can vote. Abrams told CNHI she agrees that out of incarceration, voting rights should be restored.

"Voting is a constitutional right, it is the foundation of how we engage in society as citizens and upon completion of sentencing it is incumbent upon the states to fully restore those rights," Abrams said. "It is not only good for our democracy, but also good for our communities. I have yet to see compelling evidence that any reason should be able to preclude returning citizens from exercising these rights.”

Nonviolent versus violent

The resolution prompting the Georgia Senate study committee was sponsored last session by a group of Democratic state senators.

The proposal hinges on the current law excluding felony offenders from voting because their crimes of “moral turpitude.” The phrase, the resolution says, is too vague and ill-defined to keep offenders from voting and reintegrating into the community.

Throughout the duration of the first Senate study committee meeting, it was unclear which felonies would be minor enough to warrant regaining the right to vote and if those who have served their time can vote before paying off all remaining fines and fees.

Totonchi spoke during the first committee meeting. One of the Southern Center for Human Rights recommendations to the committee is limiting criminal disenfranchisement to a list of specific offenses.

“There’s nothing in the code that spells this out. There are different code sections you can look to to guide for example the seven deadlies,” Totonchi told CNHI, “but outside of that I think violent and nonviolent can be very tricky. Without the actual definitions it can be arbitrary.”

Abrams fell in line with Sanders' controversial comments, agreeing that no matter the offense, every reintegrating felon should be able to vote. 

"People who are convicted of heinous crimes should be given appropriate penalty, I do not disagree with that. But voting is a right of citizenship and our focus should be on making certain our citizens who served their time are able to cast their ballot," Abrams said. "I believe that once you have completed your sentence, regardless of the type of crime that you have committed, your completion of your sentence is your reentry into society, and therefore you should be permitted to cast a ballot."

The historical racist legacy of disenfranchisement should not be forgotten, Abrams said.

After Reconstruction, the process was designed to limit political access of recently freed slaves. Now, Georgia's extreme incarceration rates and highest rate of probation and parolees in the country, are results of that legacy, she said.

"There is a deeply racial intention behind it that has nothing to do with the fear of safety and the degradation of citizenship," Abrams said.

Quentin Addison said he was known as the Thomasville dope dealer during his "entrepreneurial" days of selling crack cocaine. He was eventually arrested and convicted of selling crack cocaine in 1990 and served two years in prison.

If drug charges are determined to be nonviolent offenses and voting rights restored to drug offenders, Addison would have been able to vote during his four years of supervision.

“You don’t miss it until it’s gone,” Addison said.

Small steps forward

But Porter with the Sentencing Project said the proposed Georgia revision doesn’t go far enough.

The number of violent felons on community supervision totals 55,985, according to the April statistics from the department of supervision. Drawing the line between violent and nonviolent can be a problem, advocates say.

For the data gathered by CNHI, violent felonies were defined as involving direct harm of another person — including assault felonies and sex crimes. Nonviolent crimes were classified as “drug, property or other,” by the Department of Community Supervision.

“I would consider what’s being proposed in Georgia to be very limited and narrow expansion of rights,” Porter said. “I suppose any step forward is a step in the right direction but it is unfortunate that Georgia lawmakers and advocates are so limited in their thinking about expanding rights to people living with felony convictions.”

Totonchi said in an “ideal world” she agrees.

“That said, we are here in Georgia and we are thrilled there is a bipartisan committee that is taking a look at these issues,” she said. “We are behind the curve and now is the time for us to get ahead of it. My hope is that this is a first step.”

Moultrie resident Robert Hutchinson was convicted of a drug felony and served a prison sentence as well as five years of probation. He said he didn’t understand when released, after you’ve done your time, why are you still kept from voting?

“It’s like they take your voice away. You have no voice and it’s like you don’t count for nothing no more,” Hutchinson said. “I’m human. I’ve made mistakes, so (once) I’ve paid my dues, I should be fully restored.”

Could the extra votes change outcomes

Some researchers say the outcome of the 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush — that hinged on Florida — would have been different if the state’s former felons were allowed to vote on Election Day — that the added thousands of votes cast by disenfranchised felons would have tipped the scales toward the Democrat.

Another analysis — modeled with Georgia and North Carolina turnout of felons — concluded Bush still would have won by a slim margin.

“In reality, people don’t know how people will vote,” Porter told CNHI. “No one has a crystal ball.”

However, it is clear there was a gubernatorial race in Georgia where including and registering residents was incredibly important, she said. Now it’s one of the primary goals of the losing candidate.

“Given how close the election was, if Georgia has a more inclusive democracy,” Porter said, “maybe the outcome of that election would be different.”

Abrams' gubernatorial race against Gov. Brian Kemp in 2018 was rooted in voter participation. Now, the politician has gone on to make universal voting rights her primary goal. Absent voter suppression, Abrams told CNHI, she believes the outcome would have been different and, to her, felon disenfranchisement is a form of voter suppression.

"Any laws and rules that are put in place to defuse the capacity of eligible citizens or should be eligible citizens to participate in party politics is voter suppression," she said. "And I wouldn’t argue that this population would have necessarily cast a ballot for me, but I would argue that we should know what their desires are."

The outcome should have "included every eligible voice," Abrams said. Which is why she launched her organization, Fair Fight. 

The question of whether criminal enfranchisement could change election outcomes, Morales-Doyle, from the Brennan Center for Justice, said, shouldn’t even be considered.

“I think that one of the problems with the way that we in this country often talk about election reform, about the rules, about eligibility, about the rules of how elections are run, is that we focus on what impact it would have on the outcome," he said. “None of us should be motivated when we think about who should be eligible to vote on what we think the outcome would be in a partisan election. Legislators should certainly not be concerned with that.”

You’d have to make a lot of assumptions, he said, but “it’s safe to say people of both parties commit crimes in Georgia.”

“I think people of both parties are sentenced to community supervision in Georgia and people of both parties would be impacted by this law,” Morales-Doyle said, “and I think it’s safe to say, going to prison, probably doesn’t change what party you’re in.”

In addition to Riley Bunch, SunLight Project reporters Chris Herbert, Patty Dozier, Charles Oliver, Pat Donahue, Bryce Ethridge and Billy W. Hobbs contributed to this report.

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